Remembering Leo

Curator praises a great creative soul.

September/October 2010

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Remembering Leo

Photo: Neil MacDonald

Leo Holub, who founded Stanford's photography program, made portraits of more than 100 prominent American artists and created a rich portfolio of campus, city and nature images, resisted calling himself an artist—or even a photographer, at first. He preferred "picture-taker." But his exhibitions and two monographs—Leo Holub Photographer (1982), with a foreword by Wallace Stegner, and Leo Holub: A Lifetime of Photography (2007)—belie this modest disclaimer. Today, the Cantor Arts Center holds 600 Holub prints; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also houses a portfolio; and his papers are in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.

Holub died at his Noe Valley home on April 28 at age 93.

Born in 1916 on an apiary farm in Decatur, Ark., Holub moved with his family to California in 1923. Recognizing her son's artistic talent, Lydia Holub encouraged him to put earnings from his apprenticeship as a blacksmith into studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After further training at San Francisco's California School of Fine Arts, he worked in graphic arts design and commercial lithography.

Holub joined Stanford's planning office as a senior planner in 1960. Among his assignments: taking photographs around campus. Four years later, 234 of those images made up his first solo exhibition, Stanford Seen, at the Stanford Art Gallery. As in Holub's pictures of San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and art world subjects, his eye found evocative details and juxtapositions in the everyday that would go unnoticed by most. It was his pleasure to share these discoveries.

Holub built Stanford's darkrooms in 1969 and began teaching the following year. He was proud of his students, a number of whom went on to successful careers as photographers and teachers. (By his estimate, he taught some 4,500 Stanford students before retiring in 1980.) Holub always associated with the Class of 1964, having arrived at Stanford in our freshman year. Years later, he helped with reunion planning. Last November he joined us at Big Game.

Quiet as he was, our friend was much engaged with people—and treasured a legendary rapport with women of all ages.

Among his close friends and associates were artists Nathan Oliveira, Richard Diebenkorn, '44, and Frank Lobdell, and photographers Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, with whom he studied and collaborated. But his contacts and portrait subjects included notable figures in many other fields: Chemist Linus Pauling, physicist Wolfgang Panofsky, philanthropist Louise Davies, architect John Carl Warnecke, '41, musicians Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and poet Allen Ginsberg.

From 1986 to 1996, Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson commissioned Holub to make portraits of more than 100 American artists represented in their collection, among them Wayne Thiebaud, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler and Claes Oldenburg. The resulting limited-edition portfolio ranks among the finest examples of artist portraiture. His success was due in part to a gentle and self-effacing manner that immediately put his subjects at ease and established trust.

As former student Lorie Novak, '75, a New York University professor of photography, comments, "Leo's portraits exemplify his photographic genius. He responds to his subjects rather than imposing a personal style. We learn something about each artist he photographed, and this is a rare gift." Oliveira, emeritus professor of art, remembers his friend as "not only a photographer with a broad sense of subject, but one who focused on and interpreted this area's artists. He helped to define our relationship to one another and the community."

Holub's photographs can be seen in the Freidenrich Family Gallery at the Cantor Arts Center through November 7.

Survivors include his wife of 69 years, Florence Alma (Mickelson); sons Jan Leo and Eric Richard; and his brother, Richard. His son Michael Robert died in 1969. A memorial service is scheduled at 11 a.m. October 24 at the San Francisco Art Institute. At Stanford, the Leo Holub Fund for Photography has been established, c/o Elis Imboden in the department of art and art history.

PAUL J. KARLSTROM, '64, former West Coast regional director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, is an independent art writer and oral historian based in San Francisco.

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